Stress and anxiety are both words that we’re very familiar with. Often, we use them interchangeably. In many ways they are similar. Both are normal responses (to a certain degree) to life’s challenges, like work or our relationships. And they both have similar physical symptoms of worry, stomach aches, restlessness, muscle tension, racing thoughts, or sleep issues. However, there are significant differences between stress and anxiety that are important to understand:
We usually feel stress in response to external triggers. When something stressful triggers us, we naturally experience fight, flight or freeze responses as a survival mechanism to help us cope with any threats. As a physical response, our brains send signals to our body that can cause our heartbeat and breathing to speed up. There are two main types of stress. Acute stress is brought on temporarily and chronic stress is more ongoing. Sometimes, manageable levels of stress can be motivating for us to stay alert and take action when we need to. However, when it becomes overwhelming, we may need to find ways to get it under control.
On the surface, anxiety seems very similar to stress. Worry, overthinking or shame are all common characteristics. However, anxiety is more often triggered internally through excessive thoughts. It doesn’t always go away in the absence of a stressor, either. Anxiety can also turn into more serious mental health conditions, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), if we don’t manage it.
Anxiety disorders are quite common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 19% of Americans over the age of 18 had an anxiety disorder in the past year, and 31% of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetimes.
When anxiety or stress begin negatively impacting major areas of life, like work or our relationships, it may be a sign to seek out help. For those living with an anxiety disorder, there are many ways to manage it, whether that’s through therapy, medication or a combination of both. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one widely used approach, which focuses on changing unhelpful thought patterns related to anxiety.